A funeral for a friend: Heritage Harley-Davidson 

  • Keith DeSantis at the Heritage Harley-Davidson farewell party on Wednesday evening. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Blake Hermis sits on his motorcycle at the Heritage Harley-Davidson farewell party on Wednesday evening. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Blake Hermis leans on his motorcycle as Keith DeSantis greets Sylvie Gosselin of Concord during the Heritage Harley-Davidson farewell party on Wednesday evening. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/2/2020 4:33:29 PM
Modified: 10/2/2020 4:33:18 PM

They rode to Heritage Harley-Davidson on its final day, filling its huge parking lot with their cultural icons, paying tribute like they’d lost a close friend.

Heritage closed for good on Wednesday after 37 years, yet another victim of the Harley-Davidson company’s cutbacks. COVID-19 joined the sagging sales that were already in place to form a one-two punch that’s wounded the American giant.

Corporate headquarters pulled the plug, and it’s unclear what’ll move into the site at 142 Manchester St.

But this was not a business that was going away quietly. Not with its community of riders, who’ve been using Heritage as a home base for the local HOG (Harley Owners Group) chapter, 120 strong, for nearly four decades.

“You can’t beat the nostalgia of a Harley,” said Blake Hermis of Hooksett. “Once you’re on a Harley, you will never go back. They sell T-shirts to people who don’t even have bikes. Ever see anyone with a Honda shirt?

He’s the chapter’s safety officer, making sure large groups of riders ride as one as they roll through the state. He stood in the lot with 100 or more supporters, near Jim Cancelliere of Nashua.

“Terrible,” Cancelliere said. “This Harley-Davidson place is 10 times better than anybody else. They treat you like family.”

And, like families across the country these days, the dealership ran into tough times. Many of Harley-Davidson’s shops nationwide are temporarily closed due to COVID-19. Outlets in Europe have been greatly affected as well.

And the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for this empire. Sales had already been slipping before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, dropping about $58 million this year compared to the same stretch in 2019.

Harley riders were not interested in numbers. And they were not just nostalgic Wednesday. These Hogs were snorting mad, too.

They pointed a finger at Paul Veracka, who runs The Motorcycle Company, which runs 13 Harley-Davidson outlets in Florida, Michigan and Massachusetts, and he also owns Manchester Harley-Davidson.

All the riders I spoke to, about a half-dozen, said they sensed greed factored in. Corporate greed. They felt like Heritage, the little distributor in the small city, was being squashed by the big corporate machine.

I wasn’t given access to Veracka. Instead, the general manager of his Manchester Harley-Davidson, Matty Laughlin, called me back and explained that Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson made the decision, not Veracka.

In fact, the mother ship had targeted the Concord branch long ago. Part of the overall plan, Laughlin said, called Rewire the Initiative.

“They’re consolidating some market areas and closing all over the country,” Laughlin told me. “There were 50 this year, and the idea is to strengthen the dealer base with fewer dealers with a larger offering, and this one was earmarked for that.”

He called it a “miscommunication or a misunderstanding” when told that the state’s riders were angry. He said headquarters called Manchester Harley-Davidson, owned by Veracka, and requested that he coordinate the move of Concord’s inventory to the Queen City and other stores.

“If they were doing well, Laughlin said, “headquarters would not have closed them.”

No one at Heritage wanted to hear that. The turnout Wednesday suggested a loyal following, and Concord Harley’s general manager, Andy Segalini, who once entertained the thought of buying Heritage himself, told me business was good.

“I believed the store was doing well,” Segalini said. “This year was very profitable. We were exceeding our sales goals and we are doing great.”

Still, Segalini acknowledged that Harley-Davidson, the as a whole was not healthy.

“The business angle is that Harley is in deep trouble,” Segalini said. “Its big, cushy, expensive bikes are only popular with old guys, who are getting too old to ride.”

Hermis and his wife, Michelle, were born a few years too late to be called baby boomers, which was who Segalini was referring to. She’s director of the local HOG chapter.

They ride around the country together. They’ve been riding for decades. They meet in the Heritage parking lot to explore New Hampshire’s nooks and crannies. They arrange charity rides from there as well.

At least they used to.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen to the chapter,” Blake Hermis said. “We’ve been told nothing.”

Here, the riders I met swore on the lives of their exhaust pipes that the Heritage staff was special, far better than any other in the state.

Laughlin said those employees have been offered a transfer to work in Manchester. He said they’re a first-rate staff. He called the people I spoke to “a great customer base.”

That includes the Hermises. Michelle said upon her first visit, an employee walked her through the showroom, made her feel at home, an environment that she said she’s never seen at other nearby Harley dealerships.

“They’ll be missed,” Michelle said. “My kids come in here to buy gifts for myself and my husband. They know their names. We’re all heartbroken over it. These are our friends. This is where we came to see them.”

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